, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 45–65 | Cite as

Multiple limiting gradients in peatlands: A call for a new paradigm

  • Scott D. Bridgham
  • John Pastor
  • Jan A. Janssens
  • Carmen Chapin
  • Thomas J. Malterer


Peatlands often have readily apparent gradients of plant species distributions, biogeochemistry, and hydrology across several spatial scales. Many inferences have been drawn about the colinearity of these gradients, and these assumptions have become ingrained in the terminology that describes and classifies peatlands. We review the literature and present some of our own data that show that many of these inferences are either wrong or correct only under a limited set of ecological conditions. We examine historical classification schemes of peatlands and, in this context, gradients of alkalinity, pH, nutrient availability for plant growth, nutrient mineralization, hydrology, and decomposition. We further suggest a strictly defined set of terms to describe separate gradients of hydrology, alkalinity, and nutrients that limit plant growth in peatlands. Specifically, we make the following suggestions concerning terminology. (1) The suffix “-trophic” should only be used when referring to nutrients that directly limit plant growth at natural availabilities (e.g., eutrophic and oligotrophic). (2) Terms such as circumneutral, moderately acid, and very acidic (or alternatively strong, intermediate, and weak) should be used to describe the pH of peatlands. (3) Ombrogenous and geogenous (or limnogenous, topogenous, and soligenous) should be used to describe the hydrology of peatlands. (4) The terms bog and fen should be defined broadly based on water/soil chemistry and dominant plant species without accompanying assumptions regarding hydrology, topography, ontogeny, nutrient availability, or the presence or absence of nondominant indicator plant species. Better yet, the generic term peatland be used when possible to avoid confusion about conditions that may or may not be present at a particular site.

Key Words

peatlands multiple limiting gradients pH alkalinity nutrients hydrology plant species distributions decomposition 


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© Society of Wetland Scientists 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Scott D. Bridgham
    • 1
  • John Pastor
    • 2
  • Jan A. Janssens
    • 3
  • Carmen Chapin
    • 1
  • Thomas J. Malterer
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Notre DameNotre Dame
  2. 2.Natural Resources Research InstituteUniversity of MinnesotaDuluth
  3. 3.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSt. Paul

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